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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty Five

       Last updated: Friday, November 14, 2003 04:02 EST



    There was just a hint of lightness in the sky. Dawn was still a little while off, but morning was definitely stirring in the bed of night. "You can see the citadel against the sky. It seems pretty quiet now," said the Corfiote steersman.

    "Well, maybe we can sneak in," said Benito. "I hope so. If we have to use the priests... The minute those banners are visible, the gunners on the ships that are sure to be lying just out of range will open fire on us."

    "Uh-huh." Falkenberg grunted his agreement. "That's a sure sign that the Hungarians haven't gotten their cannon yet. When the cannon get here, they'll pound those walls night and day. But the Venetians in the Citadel will be watching for a sneak assault by sea. According to our Captain there are places men could be landed outside the walls. If men could get inside the fortifications they could spike the cannon and nothing could hold off the assault."

    "Er. Not from what I can gather," said Benito, diffidently. Falkenberg had, after all, been at a dozen sieges as opposed to his none-hard to believe in a man that relatively young, but still... Falkenberg was a veteran of the northeastern frontier of the Empire, where he'd been born and raised. "There are three walls. An outer curtain wall, the inner wall and then the two castles on the hill-tops."

    "A wonderful place for a holiday," said Falkenberg, dryly. "Great defenses are more than just three walls, Benito. They're enough men-with good morale-enough ammunition, and enough food and water. Perhaps most important of all, a loyal and determined population supporting them, with no traitors. And even if you've got those, there's a lot to designing walls so that they work effectively. Making walls that can stand endless cannon-fire is simply not possible. Entrenchments are more effective."

    He went on to give Benito a concise study of siege-craft. "I've been years in the learning of this stuff, and before that, I had the best teacher in the world. It occurred to him that he should pass it on to me before I had to spend thirty years re-learning it. I think maybe I'll start passing it on to you, just in case. You never know. You might be able to make some use of it."

    Benito was sharp enough to understand the unsaid. Falkenberg thought most of them would die. And he approved of Benito Valdosta and wanted to pass his knowledge on.



    It might be spring, but it was still bitterly cold here on the outer curtain-wall in the small hours of the morning. Especially after crawling out of a warm bed, from beside a warm wife. True, the warm wife had gotten up as well, and had given him some food and a small flask of wine. Maria had her moments, but generally she was a gem.

    Privately, Umberto acknowledged that his advancement was largely due to her, and her connections. He'd entered the marriage with a lot of qualms, but had come to treasure it more than anything he'd ever had in his life.

    Still, Maria was back in that warm bed now, and he was out on this cold tower. By the grumbling from the other Arsenalotti, they were feeling equally miserable about the situation. While staying within the law—just barely—of Venice and Guild alike, Captain-General Tomaselli was doing his best to make sure that they felt the misery of thwarting him.

    Umberto stamped his feet. They were frozen already. He would dress more warmly next time.

    He stared into the night. Just what would he do if a Hungarian or a Croat stuck his head up over the parapet right now? Panic, probably. He'd been a craftsman all his life, not a soldier, who'd spent a lifetime holding tools in his hands rather than weapons.. The arquebus felt as unfamiliar as the issue rapier.

    Suddenly the darkness was lit by a bright golden blazon out on sea. And then a second. "Sound the Alarum!" yelled someone. "To the guns! To the guns!"

    There was a boom and a flash from out in the dark strait. And, virtually a heartbeat later, an answering shot from the walls. Umberto ducked instinctively. He looked seaward again and saw clearly: The lateen foresail and the pennants of two vessels out there were glowing with a golden winged lion that outshone the darkness.

    "Hold your fire!" he yelled. "Hold your fire! It's the Lion of St Mark!" His voice, he found, was being chorused by many others.

    And then, echoing above the pitter-pitter of arquebus-fire from the shore—ineffective at this range—came the bright, glad sound of trumpets. It was the battle-hymn of the Knights of the Holy Trinity, and it struck fear into the hearts of their foes. Umberto recognized it, and was deeply grateful he'd never faced it as a foe. Looking at the light from the glowing emblem of Venice you could see that it was gleaming off spiky helmets and armor. The captured shore was now a mass of hastily running figures. The enemy hadn't expected a night attack, and certainly not here, at the main point of their own assault.

    "San Marco! San Marco!"

    The men on the walls yelled and cheered. There was another flash as yet another one of the Byzantine or Dalmatian pirate ships fired a cannon. The ship was plainly in pursuit of the two galleys which were flying pennants with the strange glowing winged lions. The vessels looked like typical great galleys in the dim light from the pennants.

    "Bring the guns to bear on those who follow!" Umberto shouted the words without thinking about whether or not he had the authority to give orders to the bombardiers. He might not be familiar with weapons—certainly not cannons—but he'd been a foreman by the time he was thirty. Commanding men in practical tasks was now second nature to him.

    Already, he saw, there was cannon fire from Vidos.

    "I hope to God they're firing on the pursuit!" The two galleys with their golden winged lion pennants streaming were now within cannon shot of both fortresses.

    The Venetians' fire, seeking for targets in the darkness, might have been hampered by the lack of visibility—but luck, or the winged lion, was certainly with one of the gunners. Sudden fire flared out on the dark water behind the two galleys. Perhaps a ball had struck a banked stove and scattered embers into a smashed powder keg.

    Whatever the cause, there was now a vessel on fire out on the water, and it wasn't either of the two flying the Lion. And the sky was definitely lighter. You could see that the great-galley crews must be stroking as if their very lives depended on it. Which, in fact, they did. The blazoned winged lions, so clearly visible, made them easy targets. The cannon fire from the Citadel and Vidos would discourage pursuit, but they'd still be within cannon-shot of other vessels. But they were firing their own stern-cannon now. If they were in range, so too were their foes.

    Along the shore, the trenches were flash-speckled with the muzzle-flash of arquebuses. If they planned to make landfall there, they'd do it in the face of stiff opposition. But it looked to Umberto as if the vessels were bearing down directly on the Citadel. The usual anchorage behind the berm-breakwater would be directly under small-arms fire from the shore.

    Behind him, Umberto heard horsemen. The Captain-General and the bulk of his cavalry were coming down at a hasty trot. Umberto saw that many of the troopers were still trying to buckle themselves into their breastplates. People too were streaming out of the houses behind the curtain-walls, heading for the wall.

    "Direct your fire on the trenches! Keep the buggers' heads down!" bellowed an officer. "The galleys are going to make a landing here beneath the wall."

    Umberto found himself holding his breath. There was a strip of shingly beach below the wall on this side of the berm. On the sea-side. The berm would provide some shelter and the ships would be at least three hundred and fifty yards from the enemy-held shore. That was well and good—but was the water deep enough, close in enough to allow the vessels to beach?

    Umberto was a ship-builder. He doubted it. And moreover, the gate which had been used for workers to get access from the Citadel to the port was at least a hundred and fifty yards closer. The storehouses of the Little Arsenal lay just inside that gate.

    He hastened over to Leopoldo, the garrison commander. "Milord. Permission to take some Arsenalotti down to the port-gate. We can push some heavy balks of timber onto the beach for them to shelter behind."

    Leopoldo peered at him. "Umberto Verrier. Go to it. Here, sergeant. Go with him to provide my authority to the gate." He turned to one of his captains. "I'll want all the fire we can muster from the north-east tower. See to it, Domenico."

    Umberto hurried down, calling to various people as he ran. He wasn't much of a fighter, maybe, but he could handle timber. And he loved ships-not sailing in them, the ships themselves. The thought of those ships ripping their bottoms out was not a pleasant one.




    Maria had slipped back into sleep after Umberto left, but the sound of the cannons woke her.

    It sounded serious; she got up, and listened harder.

    It was serious. Had the Hungarian king got his cannons onto the island, then? Was this the moment they'd all been dreading for days? If so-

    If so, then every able body would be needed on the walls!

    There was no way she could leave Alessia, and she had a horrible feeling she might need both hands, so she tied the baby to her back in a large shawl. Then she took up the wheel-lock pistol that Kat had given her, when they'd gone out in search of Marco, in what seemed a lifetime ago. She also took the largest cleaver in her kitchen on her way to the door.

    As soon as she was outside, she headed for the wall. She had no doubts as to what her fate would be, and that of Alessia, if the Hungarians breeched the walls. If nothing else she could fling rocks. You didn't have to be a soldier to fling rocks down on those below.

    She went pelting down the hill, along with several hundred others, all showing signs of hasty dressing and of seizing the first arms that came to hand: here a rolling-pin, there an arquebus, or a boar-spear, or a bread-peel. Half the citizens of the Citadel seemed to be running to the outer curtain-wall.

    Then, she heard the cheers. "San Marco! San Marco!"

    That didn't sound as if things were going badly. In fact, it sounded more like a welcome than a call-to-arms. And it was coming, not from the landward side, but the seaward side. Her headlong run slowed slightly; she looked out into the darkness, peering at where the shouts were coming from. For a brief moment she thought she was seeing things. The Winged Lion of Venice was coming across the sea! And it was as golden as the sun itself.

    Then she realized it was just an image of the winged lion glowing from lateen sails and pennant flags. There must be a couple of vessels out there. Corfu wasn't being attacked, it was being reinforced! She went to join the throng on the wall, to join the cheering now, rather than the defense.

    The two vessels, now easily visible in the growing light, looked as if they were racing each other for the shore. They were rowing toward the sheltered water of the L-shaped berm-except that they didn't seem intent on getting into it, which would have put them right up against the enemy-held shore. Instead, they were heading for the seaward side of the berm.

    She saw the lead vessel judder, and heard the snap of oars as the vessel hit some underwater obstruction. She could make out a stick-figure frantically waving at the other vessel from the poop. The other vessel bore hard to seaward. The first vessel was still edging forward—she was barely thirty yards from shore—but obviously leaking and sinking. The silence from the wall was now profound. People were hardly breathing. Cannon still roared from the landward wall, but here it was still.

    The second ship passed over the obstacle and, with a sugary crunch they could hear from the wall, slid to a halt. It was still in the water, but not very deep water.

    Men began pouring off it, jumping into the shallows on the eastern side of the vessel, with the ship between them and the firing from the trenches on the mainland of Corfu. Then part of the cladding timbers were smashed out of the side and Knights, waist-deep, began hauling horses out of the hole in the hull of the ship.

    By now, it was obvious the other vessel was not going to get much further. Water was overhead deep, to judge by the men swimming ashore. To her shock, Maria recognized the stocky figure who emerged, dripping, from the sea.

    Benito Valdosta yelled up at the watchers. "Hands to these ropes, all of you. Move!"

    She was even more shocked when she recognized the emotion surging through her.

    "Don't be stupid!" she snarled at herself, joining the little mob racing to help with the ropes.

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